FORWARD OPERATING BASE RIPLEY, Afghanistan -- A series of firefights in south and central Afghanistan have left the combat veterans of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) with dozens of stories to tell, with some a bit more hair-raising than others.
Nearly every Marine or Sailor who has been shot at and returned fire has their own tale of a close call, but several have tangible reminders of how close the enemy came to finding their mark.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Brian Dessel, of Doylestown, Penn., is a hospital corpsman assigned to the MEU's ground combat element, Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines. During Operation ASBURY PARK, a sweep of the Dey Chopan region, Dessel was riding with BLT 1/6's Combined Anti-Armor Team (CAAT) when they came under heavy enemy machine gun and rifle fire.
When a Marine was shot in the leg, Dessel left the relative safety of his vehicle and immediately began administering first aid to the wounded Marine even as bullets impacted around him. As he applied a battlefield dressing, the 30-year-old corpsman felt his head knocked to the side, as if he'd been slapped in the helmet.
After the battle subsided, Dessel examined his Kevlar helmet and found a tear where a bullet had struck his helmet and glanced off, tearing the cloth helmet cover. Dessel immediately wrote the date of the battle on the helmet, 'June 8th 2004.'
Driving the vehicle in which Dessel was riding, Cpl. Steven Miller, a BLT 1/6 machine gunner from Wallace, W.V., heard the sickening crunch of rounds pinging on his vehicle, and later found several holes and gashes in his Humvee's armored skin mere inches from his head.
A week earlier, during one of the first sustained firefights experienced by BLT 1/6, Cpl. Randy Wood was engaging Taliban snipers on a nearby mountain when he felt something tug at his foot. He ignored the sensation and continued to return fire only to later discover a 7.62mm bullet lodged in the sole of his boot. Wood had that bullet in his pocket and was wearing the bullet-scarred boot the next day when a ricochet struck him below the left eye, injuring him slightly.
Flying in support of the infantrymen on the ground, crew chiefs and pilots of UH-1N Huey and AH-1W Super Cobra helicopters from the MEU's aviation combat element, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced), often returned to Kandahar Air Field to find bullet holes punched in their aircraft's fuselage, or more ominously, their cargo areas.
Perhaps most harrowing of all is the story of Sgt. Marlando Wilmot, a Massachusetts native serving as a vehicle commander in CAAT during the June 8 firefight.
"I thought it was a rock or something," said Wilmot, describing the 'punch' he felt in the upper part of the ceramic plate in his protective vest, "then I looked down and saw the bullet that had hit me."
A round from a Russian-made assault rifle had struck Wilmot high in the chest but failed to penetrate the vest and plate, thereby possibly saving his life. Wilmot is like many of his fellow Marines and Sailors in saying their close calls have changed their perspective on life.
"I look at things a bit differently now," Wilmot said. "I'm not taking anything for granted and planning on doing things I've been putting off for too long."
In addition to BLT 1/6 and HMM-266 (Rein), the MEU consists of its Command Element and MEU Service Support Group 22.
For more information on the 22nd MEU (SOC)'s role in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, visit the unit's web site at http://www.22meu.usmc.mil.